From daunting to optimistic … the trails are beckoning
Photo by Gregory Nix
Above: Mike Verbern (left) and Francis Verstraten trail-clearing the Trans Canada Trail from Oxford to Slade Road.
Our long awaited, three-day 60-kilometre epic weekend hike through some of the most beautiful trails on the North Shore was only two days away. Each of our 12-member group had trained, hiked many kilometres with weighted backpacks, bought supplies, and were psyched to start walking.
The day we were due to depart, hurricane Fiona hit, unleashing her gale-force winds and causing epic destruction. In her wake, most of our North Shore forest trails were devastated. Almost unrecognisable. Walkers were left wondering when they would be able to get out on the trails again, and hiking organizations were faced with the enormous task of rebuilding.
“I have one word for what I see now — daunting!” says Alasdair Veitch, retired wildlife biologist, Cape to Cape committee member, Yon the Move hike leader and 2019 Trail Booster award recipient. “It is totally overwhelming.”
I decided to join Alasdair to see just how extensive and daunting the damage was.
We met at the entrance to Salt Springs Provincial Park and passed the park’s entrance sign, which beckoned us in as though it is any ordinary day. However, only 50 feet into the trail, we found a pick-up-stick-like mess of old trees — some three feet in diameter — strewn across the path and preventing us from going any further. Looking around, I saw a mixture of trees leaning precariously, a few trunks split violently in two, and many huge limbs torn indiscriminately from tree trunks.
“It’s not over yet,” says Alasdair. “These trees that are still standing are weakened now, and what hasn’t come down in this storm, may come down in the next with any little bit of wind.”
Alasdair tells me that the municipal and provincial parks — like this one at Salt Springs — have access to funding, while the many kilometres of volunteer-maintained trails like many of those in the Cape to Cape trail system and Gully Lake Wilderness area have none.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge,” says Alasdair. “We don’t have the ability nor the capability to cut through these massive logs and remove them from the trails. It’s one thing to be clearing trees on your own property, but (here) we are facing about 50 km of backcountry trails to clear.”
It’s the same story for most of the other hiking associations of the North Shore. Sheila Wilson, chairperson for Cobequid Eco-Trails Society, echoed Alasdair’s concerns. “We need help,” says Sheila. “If we don’t, our trails will not open before 2023.”
Opening the trails is now the priority of each trail association on the North Shore. Some were hit harder than others and require more assistance. But what is clear, is that they all need more assistance than their local volunteers can provide.
“Our goal is to open all trails, including our multi-use trails before the snow flies,” says Gregory Nix, president of the Cumberland County Trails Association. “However, our volunteers are limited in their skill and time. Our work parties, thus far, have progressed less than 500 metres per four hours of hard (backbreaking) labour.”
Gregory tells me that individuals and groups from clubs have been working tirelessly, sometimes with the assistance of a volunteer’s tractor or small excavator.
“The job is immense,” he says. “At this time, most of Cumberland County trails are passable with extreme caution, but overhanging trees place a safety concern on the trails. The famous Bunny Trail in Oxford is open and also a short bit of the Peace Trail in Pugwash.”
It was not long ago I had hiked the Peace Trail and appreciated its serenity along the shoreline, which was protected under the cool canopy of conifers. I took a moment to reflect on the immense impact resulting from hurricane Fiona.
“We have over 1,000 trees down in just the one-kilometre section of the Jitney Trail around Meadowbrook,” says Clifford MacDonald, chair of the Pictou County Trails Association. “We have a processor working there now. It’s going to take time.”
Velma MacEachern, past supervisor of the Cape George Hiking Trails, also gives me the same report. She explains that it’s difficult to even assess the damage on the trails because, “they are cut off by fallen trees.” She adds, “We are a mess around here and at this point not sure where to turn to for help.”
Leaving Salt Springs Trail, I was saddened to think that access to these soothing wooded paths is now limited. “This has been my church,” says Alasdair, motioning with reverence as we leave the forest.
The benefits of spending time in nature and walking forest trails had been keenly appreciated by many during the pandemic lockdowns. People began to walk and explore new trails in their area. Since that time, getting out in nature has become an integral part of many people’s lives, providing both physical and emotional outlets, reducing stress and boosting positivity. Now, post-Fiona, the impact of not being able to crunch leaves under our feet in the fall, listening to the sound of brooks flowing along a wooded path, or snowshoeing through the quiet forests in winter, may be more than we realize.
“People just want to get back out (hiking) and walk their dog where there are no sidewalks,” says Alasdair. “Somewhere where they can see the water or smell the trees.”
Later, Alasdair takes me to six other popular hiking trails in the area to assess the damage: Six Mile Brook Trail, Trenton Park, Green Hill Provincial Park, Melmerby Beach Provincial Park and Roy Island Trail, and Powel’s Point Provincial Park. With the exception of Green Hill Provincial Park and the Melmerby Beach area, it’s impossible to go more than 100 feet into the trail due to a tangle of fallen trees over the paths.
“The storm has certainly changed our perspective,” says Gordon Young, chairperson for the Cape to Cape Trails Association. “Before (Fiona) we were planning hikes and spending our time doing trail development, Adirondack placement etc. Now, we have to be focused on just getting our trails open again. They are now all officially closed.”
Three days later, I joined Gordon and his group from the Cape to Cape Trails Association to assess the Six Mile Brook Trail, one of my favourite hiking trails on the North Shore. I was hoping the MacLachlan Bothy — the only free overnight drop-in wooden shelter on a trail in Nova Scotia — was still standing.
I met Gordon Young, Pat MacDonnell, Alasdair Veitch and Theresa Dickson at the trailhead to the Six-Mile-Brook Trail. The first half kilometre of trail was completely blocked with downed maples, poplars and elms, so we skirted past the initial entrance and accessed the trail through a small path off an adjacent quarry road. On sections of the path, I heard, “I don’t recognize this at all,” and “We will have to forge a new path around these fallen timbers.”
However, the majority of the trail was surprisingly untouched, the memorial benches were intact and most of the trail markers were visible. Most of all, we were all grateful that we were able to walk on a forest trail.
“I’m optimistic,” says Alasdair with enthusiasm. “I think, with a crew of people and chainsaws, we can get this trail back in shape for hiking by November.”
“We haven’t made it to the Bothy yet,” says Pat, looking down from the south path to the brook below. We noticed that the water has wildly diverged from its once, well-worn channel, and was now flowing in new directions around piles of debris and timber that were washed downstream during the rain and wind of the hurricane.
“Must have been a raging river during Fiona. Look at that water mark. Must have overflowed its bank at least 20 feet,” says Pat.
As the path started to descend, we followed the trail ribbons to the Bothy’s outdoor privy.
“She’s intact!” I shouted, pointing to the Bothy.
“Not a scratch,” says Alasdair. Gordon and Theresa, who were investigating the trail on the north side of the brook, have now joined us in celebration.
“We made it through!” exclaimed Gordon and Theresa in unison. “Parts were rough, but we can get this six-kilometre loop to the Bothy back in shape,” announces Gordon. “It’s going to take lots of hard work and help, but we can do it.”
I marvelled at the amount of commitment and dedication. All the trail associations on the North Shore are undertaking a task of epic proportions — getting our trails reopened for our physical and mental wellbeing.
“We are very thankful to our local business and contractors who have donated their gear and all the individual and club efforts we have been seeing,” says Gregory Nix.
With more professional help, more volunteers and added financial support, the daunting restoration will be an optimistic one. Our trails need us now, as much as we need them.
Like to Help with Trail Restoration?
Cobequid Eco-Trails Society Sheila Wilson | firstname.lastname@example.org
Pictou County Trails Assoc. Clifford MacDonald | 902.759.1191
Cape to Cape Trails Assoc. Gordon Young | 902.396.6116
Antigonish North Shore Development Assoc. Karen Mcgronicle | email@example.com
Tatamagouche Trails Assoc. Chris Lavers | firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Cumberland County Trails Assoc. Gregory Nix | nixgregalvina@acarlos